This article is written by Johanna Knox (starcooked.blogspot.com)
While some useful and nutritious weeds wither or die back during autumn, others just keep on flourishing. Two that you’re likely to find growing all year round are chickweed and puha.
Puha: what’s all the hoo-ha?
Botanical name: Sonchus species. AKA: Puwha, Sow thistle
Puha grows all over. There are several species in New Zealand, and even within species, individual plants can look quite different from each other.
Their appearance depends on age, growing conditions, and probably natural genetic variation. In moist, rich soil and some shade, puha can grow huge and lush. Puha plants forced to lead harder lives often have smaller, sparser leaves and a more purplish tinge to their stalks. The flowers of Puha look a bit like dandilions.
Puha as food
Puha is rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants. Young puha leaves and stems are quite bitter. In bigger, older puha, the leaves seem to lose some of their bitterness and even become slightly sour and salty. However, the stems of older plants fill with a gooey white sap that’s extremely bitter.
Young leaves and stems and older leaves can all be used raw as salad greens. Every above-ground part of puha (even the buds and flowers) can be cooked.
If you’re using the stems of older plants in cooking, bruise or crush them when you rinse
them to let the bitter sap wash away. You can substitute puha for spinach in any recipe. Just as
with spinach, allow for it to lose volume when cooked.
Puha as medicine
Bitter-tasting plants like puha have long been known to have medicinal value, and I suspect
many of us 21st century urbanites would benefit from eating bitter greens more frequently.
It’s the actual bitter taste that is important. Bitter tastes trigger a set of responses in your body that stimulate and enhance digestive function, and help your body absorb nutrients. For the best effect you should probably eat your bitters about 15 minutes before the rest of your meal. (So have a puha salad as a starter!)
Avoid bitters if you have ulcers or a reflux condition though, or at least check with a medical
Chickweed: star of the wild
Botanical name: Stellaria media. AKA: Starweed
Finding and harvesting
Chickweed likes to grow wild in gardens (often on a bed of soil you’ve just cleared), as well as in the unmowed areas of parks and reserves. It starts life as a mat of tangly, sprawling stems with small teardrop-shaped leaves. The leaves get bigger and the stems more upright as it grows.
Its tiny, white flowers look like they have ten petals, but if you peer closely you’ll see they’re five petals with splits down their middles.
It’s hard to pull a handful of chickweed up without bringing other bits of unwanted weed with it. The easiest way to harvest it is to find the tips, pull them upwards, and snip off the bestlooking bits.
Chickweed as food
Chickweed contains B vitamins, as well as vitamins C and D. It’s also a respectable source of iron, copper, calcium and sodium.
Raw chickweed snipped up into little pieces (1 or 2 cm long) is a healthy and yummy salad ingredient. It reminds me a bit of alfalfa sprouts. You can also cook it in a stirfry, a soup, a casserole or a sauce. Add it at the last minute, and preferably cut it up quite small so it doesn’t feel stringy when you eat it.
Cuisine-wise, chickweed really comes into its own in pesto. It’s one of a number of plants that contain saponins – compounds that lather up like soap. (Some plants that contain especially high levels of saponins are used as natural soap substitutes, but that’s another story.) The saponins in chickweed give your pesto an especially creamy quality.
You can also throw chickweed into a smoothie – it adds nutritional value and makes the smoothie extra frothy!
Chickweed as medicine
It’s partly the saponins that make chickweed valuable as a soothing and healing skin treatment. Chickweed poultices or compresses can be good for eczema, insect bites, and other itchy skin conditions.
To make a chickweed poultice pound a big handful of chickweed in a mortar and pestle, spread it over the area you want to treat, and bind it on with a strip of cotton or gladwrap, or a layer of each (cotton then gladwrap.)
To make a chickweed compress first make juice from a few handfuls of chickweed. You can do this in a juicer if you have one. Alternatively, whiz up the chickweed in a blender or food processor with a little water, then strain the mix through muslin.
If you prefer to take the unplugged route, pound the chickweed very well in a mortar and pestle, add a bit of water, and strain through muslin to obtain the juice.
Finally, lay a piece of clean cotton on a clean towel, and pour the chickweed juice over it. Place the juice-soaked cotton on the affected area of skin, or wrap it around it.
TIPS & TRICKS:
Scavenging for your supper
Wild foods can be fresh, yummy, healthy, and free. And foraging is an addictive pastime.
Tools of the foraging trade
What you need when foraging depends on what you’re planning to gather. But to be very well prepared, take scissors, gloves, several bags of different sizes, and even a small trowel, if you think you might dig anything up. Reusable shopping bags and vege bags are good. (Onya do a good line: www.onyabags.co.nz)
Just how safe is this foraging business?
- RULE #1: If you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it
- RULE #2: Get to know your local toxic plants. Try this Landcare Research resource: landcareresearch.co.nz/publications/infosheets/poisonplants/
- RULE #3: avoid areas that get showered in car exhaust, could be polluted or may have been recently sprayed with herbicide (although harvesting new growth from areas that have been sprayed in the past should be okay)
- RULE #4: Be sure to get permission before foraging on someone else’s property, including farmland.